Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A couple of quotes (John Berger, Norman Minnick)

From a couple of things I've been reading (or, in the first case, rereading) during the past week.

First, from "The Moment of Cubism," an essay by the British Marxist art critic John Berger, in his Selected Essays (published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, in 2003). The essay was originally written in 1969.

"The Cubist movement ended in France in 1914. With the war a new kind of suffering was born. Men were forced to face for the first time the full horror -- not of hell, or damnation, or a lost battle, or famine, or plague -- but the full horror of what stood in the way of their own progress. And they were forced to face this in terms of their own responsibility, not in terms of a simple confrontation as between clearly defined enemies.

The scale of the waste and the irrationality and the degree to which men could be persuaded and forced to deny their own interests led to the belief that there were incomparable and blind forces at work. But since these forces could no longer be accommodated by religion, and since there was no ritual by which they could be approached or appeased, each man had to live with them within himself, as best he could. Within him they destroyed his will and his confidence. [...]

[...] The new kind of suffering that was born in 1914 and has persisted in Western Europe until the present day is an inverted suffering. Men fought within themselves about the meaning of events, identity, hope. This was the negative possibility implicit in the new relation of the self to the world. The life they experienced became a chaos within them. They became lost within themselves.

Instead of apprehending (in however simple and direct a way) the processes which were rendering their own destinies identical with the world's, they submitted to the new condition passively. That is to say the world, which was nevertheless indivisibly part of them, reverted in their minds to being the old world which was separate from them and opposed them: it was as though they had been forced to devour God, heaven and hell and live forever with the fragments inside themselves. It was indeed a new and terrible form of suffering and it coincided with the widespread, deliberate use of false ideological propaganda as a weapon. Such propaganda preserves within people outdated structures of feeling and thinking whilst forcing new experiences upon them. It transforms them into puppets -- whilst most of the strain brought about by the transformation remains politically harmless as inevitably incoherent frustration. The only purpose of such propaganda is to make people deny and then abandon the selves which otherwise their own experience would create."

And this, by poet Norman Minnick, from his Introduction to the poetry anthology Between Water and Song: New Poets for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Norman Minnick (published 2010 by White Pine Press).

"A graduate student in a creative writing program said recently that we shouldn't read anyone before the previous generation of poets because their poems don't include cell phones and iPods and thus have nothing to say to the modern poet. Many young poets are looking only to poets of their own generation or teachers in their respective MFA programs, rather than, say, Li Po, Sappho, Mistral, or Machado. We are experiencing what I call 'American Idol Syndrome.' An aspiring singer tells the audience that her influences include Mariah Carey, Pink, or Hannah Montana rather than Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, or Kirsten Flagstad. [...]

[...] What's ignored is a deeper connection with the inner, or spiritual, life. Too many poets stay on the dry surface while volleying back and forth between the rational and the emotional. They do not honor the vertical energy that is necessary for a deeper, more soulful and spiritual life experience. Vertical awareness, then, must include sensation and intuition or imagination, 'a movement down,' as [Robert] Bly says, 'into earthly body, dirt, appetite, gross desire, death; and a movement toward sunlight, time, fulfillment, lily blossoms, purity, narcissus flowers, beauty, opening. ...' There is a desperate need for vertical awareness in poetry today. Our culture has become flatter and more superficial and horizontal than ever before. [...]

[...] The severe drought caused by Language poetry and the tedium and irony of the postmodernists are certainly contributing to the ruin. My father went into a bookstore and asked for a recommendation. The salesperson handed him a book by a young, "up-and-coming" poet. My father, one of the most well read people I know, said that he simply couldn't figure out what she was talking about in her poems. Neither could I. He said he got the feeling he wasn't welcome into 'the club.' What is in these poems for the reader? Who should poems be written for anyway? Pablo Neruda says, 'Poetry has lost its ties with the reader... It has to get him back... It has to walk in the darkness and encounter the heart of a man, the eyes of a woman, the stranger in the street, those who at twilight or in the middle of the starry night feel the need for at least one line of poetry.'"

(The work by Robert Bly that Minnick cites is Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Bly, published 1993 by Beacon Press; original edition 1971. The passage Minnick quotes from Bly is, I assume, from one of Bly's Introductions in the book, either the original introductions from the 1971 edition or possibly the new introduction Bly wrote for the 1993 edition. The work by Neruda that Minnick cites is Memoirs, translated by Hardie St. Martin, published 1974 by Penguin Books.)

The anthology Between Water and Song includes selections of poems by 15 poets, all born after 1960: Ruth Forman, Ilya Kaminsky, Malena Mörling, Kevin Goodan, Jay Leeming, Terrance Hayes, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Sherwin Bitsui, Maria Melendez, Valzhyna Mort, Eugene Gloria, Brian Turner, Joshua Poteat, Maurice Manning, and Chris Abani.

I saw this anthology just yesterday at a local bookstore, and if there were no prior claims this month I'd have picked it up. But it's on my list now! "There is a desperate need for vertical awareness in poetry today." Oh yes....
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